This Shabbat, we had the distinct privilege to hear Rabbi Joseph Telushkin speak as the Scholar in Residence at Beth Shalom synagogue in Potomac, Maryland. What a fantastic mind, and what a wonderful speaker!
I remember as a teen already reading the book by him and Dennis Prager called, The “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,” which really helped me understand from a Haskafa (Jewish guiding philosophy) standpoint a lot of the tough questions about G-d and faith. The teachings from his book stayed with me my whole life, and today hearing Rabbi Telushkin speak brought back the best of that time of learning and finding Hashem in my life.
One of the things today that struck me the most was the discussion about nature and nurture. If people are a composite of their genetic makeup (nature) and the circumstances of their environment (nurture), then the question is how can anyone really be held accountable for anything bad that they do? In other words, if people are genetically predisposed to certain vices or suffered hardships in life that led them astray, perhaps they are not really guilty, and should not be punished for doing wrong.
But Rabbi Telushkin brought out today something very astute from Judaism, and that is that we are not just what nature and nurture make us–but rather, there is a third leg of this triad of factors that make us who we are, and that third and most important element is that we each have a soul. The soul of each person guides us to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and sacred and impure, and to not just give in to our weaknesses, which each person has. Rabbi Telushkin briefly joked about this and said, “Now, I bet you want to know what my vices are.” And then turned around quickly with a big smile and said, “Mind your own business!” It evoked a good laugh in the congregation.
Yes, we are all flesh and blood–all human beings–and we are impacted by our genetic makeup and our upbringing. However, at the same time, we are children of the Almighty G-d, each with “the breath of life” from Hashem–a soul that is a piece of G-d and with which we gain free choice to decide what we do and don’t do, and with which we can moderate our evil inclinations and behaviors. Nature and nurture are fundamental determinants of who we are, but our soul is the deciding factor of what we do and how we end up in this world and the next.
(Thank you to Rabbi Telushkin and Beth Shalom Synagogue for a wonderful Shabbat of learning and growth.)